September 12, 2005
The American Indian Law Clinic has been awarded a $4,000 grant from the Colorado Bar Foundation, the charitable foundation of the Colorado Bar Association, to conduct a series of community education workshops on the impending implementation of the federal American Indian Probate Reform Act (AIPRA). The General Allotment Act of 1887 divided tribal lands previously held in common into small tracts held in trust by the United States for individual Indian owners. The “allotments” could be inherited under state laws of intestate succession, or devised by federally-approved wills. Lack of access to lawyers, cultural barriers and other factors made Indian wills uncommon. Generations of intestate succession splintered Indian ownership. Today the average allotment has 17 owners, holding as tenants in common. Many parcels have hundreds of owners and some shares are so small that if they could be partitioned in kind they would be smaller than a common book page. Fractionation of tribal lands makes the land virtually useless to the individual owners and tribes alike.The problem of fractionated interests in Indian land has long held the attention of Congress. Certain escheat provisions of Indian Land Consolidation Act of 1983 and the 1984 amendments were struck down as unconstitutional. After several other unworkable legislative solutions were attempted, a wholesale revision of the entire process was enacted as the American Indian Land Probate Reform Act of 2004 (“AIPRA”). The AIPRA is set to be implemented in whole in April 2006.The AIPRA is intended to stop the centuries-long fractionation of American Indian tribal lands by restricting inheritance where there is no will and allowing tribes and individual Indians to purchase interest in federal Indian trust land at probate. A complex Act, it is filled with details that one Congressman opined that, “only a probate lawyer and the green eyeshade folks can love.”The grant will provide the funding for the Clinic’s student attorneys to conduct two community legal education workshops explaining the impact of the AIPRA, one either at or near the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute reservations in southwestern Colorado, and one in the metro-Denver area where more than 30,000 Native Americans reside. Videotaping of the workshops for broadcast on public television will also be funded. A guide to understanding the AIPRA will be developed and distributed statewide to assist individual tribal members in handling their land interests. The guide and links to the relevant statutes, agencies, and tribal offices will be posted on a variety of Native American and legal services organizations’ websites, including the Clinic’s.The American Indian Law Clinic was established in 1992 as an addition to the University of Colorado School of Law’s clinical education program to provide quality legal representation to poor clients with specific Indian law related problems. Every case accepted or project undertaken involves issues of federal Indian law or the law of a particular tribe--focusing primarily on cases or projects located in Colorado. Intended to provide students with hands-on experience with Indian law issues, students are under the direct supervision of the Clinic Director, Jill E. Tompkins, who is a clinical professor of law.